newsletter: The Saturday Golfer
Your Short Game Doesn't Matter (as much as we thought)

Last updated Dec 01, 2023

Your Short Game Doesn't Matter (as much as we thought)

You've probably read (on this blog) about how important the short game is for golf performance. But have we evaluated this correctly? Is it just a bad hunch?

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Before you call me a complete hypocrite, I want to share how we got here.

I recently revisited a topic that I haven't explored in quite some time—strokes gained golf statistics. You know, those stats that you see everywhere but nobody really understands:

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If you've read my post on what statistics you should be tracking in golf, you know that I'm a big advocate for keeping your stats.

But according to the strokes gained methodology, tracking your putts per round, GIR, and fairways hit is an antiquated approach to improvement.


To explain, let's paint out a scenario.

28 putts in a round is good... Right?

Imagine a completely fictitious, unrealistic golfer that hits every approach shot and/or chip shot to exactly 6 feet every single hole.

In other words, this golfer has eighteen 6-footers each round.

So let me pose a question to you:

Is 28 putts per round a good outcome for this golfer?

No way!

On average, tour pros make 6-foot putts roughly 66% of the time.

If our golfer performed like a tour player on the greens, here's what their stats would show for this round:

  • Twelve 1-putts
  • Six 2-putts
  • Total Putts: 24

So for this golfer, 28 putts is a BAD outcome!

But as we all know, even the best tour pros won't have 6 footers on every hole, and in general, 28 putts would be considered "average" for a tour pro and outstanding for an amateur golfer.

What is "strokes gained"?

The scenario I just described above is why measuring putts per round, greens in regulation, and fairway hit percentage does not always tell the full story.

Our fictional golfer took 28 putts and walked away feeling like they putted terribly that round.

Likewise, a golfer could play a links-style course with HUGE greens like St. Andrews and walk away with 36 putts feeling like they made everything.

The "strokes gained" system is an attempt to more accurately measure the relative performance of a golfer in all categories. I don't have time to do a deep dive on this today, but plan on writing about it more in the near future!

The system was first developed by Mark Broadie and explained to the public through his book, Every Shot Counts.

What strokes-gained tells us about our short game

Drumroll please...

I know you're crossing your fingers, hoping the title of this newsletter is true and you're off the hook from practicing your short game forever.

Unfortunately, that's not the conclusion here. In fact, I still firmly believe that practicing the short game is one of the most effective things to do as a golfer. Not only can you gain a lot of strokes quickly, but you also get an intangible benefit—practicing the short game helps the long game. Swing flaws in your pitching motion will become amplified in the full swing.

But there is some good news for those of you who dread the short game.

In his book, Every Shot Counts, Mark Broadie proves with strokes gained data that the primary difference between most amateur golfers and the pros is NOT the short game, but rather tee-shots/long-game. Just take a look at this table:

Am Golfer SkillPro-Long/Am-ShortAm-Long/Pro-ShortVariance

What's going on here?

This was a simulation (from 6,500 yards) based on hundreds of thousands of strokes-gained data points where a pro and an amateur of varying skill levels paired up:

  • In the "Pro-Long" group, the tour pro hit all shots >=100 yards (i.e. tee shots) while the amateur hit all shots <100 yards.
  • In the "Pro-Short" group, the tour pro hit all shots <100 yards (i.e. short game) while the amateur hit drivers and irons all day

The "variance" column shows us something interesting—in every simulation, the team where the pro hit the "long" shots won by a significant margin every time.

And furthermore, the worse the amateur golfer was, the bigger the victory.

This means that the biggest differentiator between you and a tour pro is your long game, NOT your short game.

A tangent about Jason Dufner that you don't need to read

One of my most vivid golf memories was sitting at the dinner table at Auburn's home golf tournament. Jason Dufner, an alum spoke to all of us that night.

Here's what he told us:

Guys—There's one big difference between me and you. My short game doesn't suck.

It stuck with me because I had just finished a round where I shot a 76 that could have been a 72 had I not missed almost every up and down opportunity I had that day.

But when I was learning the game, did I feel like the short game was my biggest problem?

No way! I needed to find a way to get off the tee effectively and consistently, which leads me to my conclusion...

Concluding Thoughts

So what's the conclusion here?

Do we all need to find ourselves a tour pro that will hit our tee shots?

While that's a tempting solution, here's what you need to take away:

  • Your long-game strategy matters a TON—most golfers can't transform their golf swing overnight. But they can transform their decision-making on the course. The fastest way to drop strokes is to learn your yardages, make better decisions, and manage your expectations.
  • Practice your basic pitch shots a lot—Whoa!! Isn't that a contradiction? Nope, because learning the proper form for a pitch shot is the easiest way to develop strong full-swing habits. I'll die on this hill—practicing short shots helps your long shots (especially complete beginners).
  • Play the long game with your long game—I've talked to a lot of my readers and there's something that I've come to learn. Most golfers are not patient enough with swing changes and improvements. Building a consistent golf swing takes a lot of TIME. Years, not months. So recognize that as a golfer, your long-term improvement is dependent on making small, consistent improvements to your golf swing over a long period of time. Be patient and the results will come!

And that's about it for today. See you next week!

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